THE Cool Web, created to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, had its triumphant premiere on Thursday 30th October, when baritone Edward Grint was joined by the Philharmonia Voices, the Melody Makers of Bath Abbey (a children’s choir from local schools) and the Endymion Ensemble under the distinguished baton of Robin O’Neill. Composed by Jools Scott with a wonderful libretto compiled by Sue Curtis, the oratorio is based on the work of Robert Graves who was seriously injured in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The poetry selected was all written around the time of Graves’ service at the front and, as such, has the vivid immediacy of a young, innocent man thrown into a terrible conflict.
To say that it was a privilege to have been there is such an understatement; the performance was one of the most profound and moving tributes to the fallen I have encountered in a year when there have been so many. Scott’s beautiful, lyrical, energetic music was both glorious and deeply disturbing and conveyed the richness of Robert Graves’ poetry with an unfailing passion and intensity.
As the excellent programme notes informed us, Graves’ poem The Cool Web was the inspiration for the overall pattern of the work. Children, because they cannot tame and control experience by distancing and articulating it, encounter reality full on. As we grow up, however, we create a cool web of intellectualization – we use thought and words to protect us from the intensity of life. Or, to put it in Graves’ own words, “we spell away the soldiers and the fright”. Following on from Scott’s setting of this poem, the journey of the oratorio goes from the tranquillity of the English countryside to the Somme and then back to a kind of resolution at the end. Peace, war, shellshock, healing.
There is so much to admire in Scott’s music. It is totally accessible – the enthusiastic audience (slightly over-enthusiastic audience in fact) loved it – but it avoids saccharine sweetness, it is varied in style – reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and Britten at times – yet has a definite voice of its own. His instrumental writing, so beautifully played by the Endymion Ensemble, is rich and full of colour, sometimes charming, sometimes menacing, whilst his choral writing is simply sublime, constantly making use of different textures and truly giving both the children’s chorus and the exquisite Philharmonia Voices something to sing about. The soaring soprano lines in particular were breathtaking, the unnamed soprano soloist being exceptionally lovely, whilst the children’s rendition of Allie was utterly delightful and one of the highlights of the evening. In fact, the use of children’s voices was a particularly clever touch, keeping us, the audience, rooted in reality and perhaps preventing the whole from becoming just a bit too cerebral.
Most of the solo work was in the very capable hands British baritone Edward Grint whose commanding performance was absolutely central to the success of the work. He became Robert Graves for the duration, his thrilling voice and facial expressions capturing the emotion of the piece with intensity and sincerity. We hung onto his every word in Goliath and David, A Child’s Nightmare was utterly chilling whilst the Last Days of Leave – an a cappella piece for soloist and male voice quartet – was heartbreakingly lovely.
I sincerely hope that The Cool Web finds a place in the established repertoire and that this fine performance does not end up being a one off. However, the nature of the choral writing is such that it would be beyond the capabilities of all but the most accomplished choirs which, on a purely practical level, and with sponsorship increasingly difficult to find, would make performances very expensive to put on. But whatever it’s fate, there has been a lot of magnificent English choral music written in recent years – the work James MacMillan and the late John Tavener spring to mind – and I believe Jools Scott’s work is in keeping with the very best of this. His is a name we will be hearing a lot of in the future and the spontaneous standing ovation was richly deserved.
It was a strange programming decision indeed that the second part of the evening should be given over to a performance of The Edith Cavell Story given by Leonard Pearcey and Sophie Ward. Adapted from Diana Souhami’s book, it told the story of the British nurse who helped save the lives of soldiers from both sides of the conflict. For this, she was found guilty of treason and shot by a German firing squad. The story was very moving of course and the two narrators spoke with considerable elegance and flair, but the whole came across as an unfortunate anticlimax. The Cool Web was such a profound experience that to have left the Abbey with the final moments still fresh in our minds – the Last Post, the children’s choir disappearing into the distance and, in the silence, either by meticulous planning or my some quirk of fate, the Abbey clock striking nine would have been infinitely preferable.